From Worst to Best in Two Seasons: Oakland Oaks


Credit: Ron Riesterer (1968) - Mercury News


The Oakland Oaks would only be a part of the ABA for two seasons (1967-69). In their first season, the Oaks went 22-56 (28.2 W/L%) and ranked dead last. In the following season, the Oaks went 60-18 (76.9 W/L%) and finished with the then best regular-season record in ABA history. Not only did they have the best regular-season record, but they ended up winning the Championship!


So... how did the Oakland Oaks go from one of the worst to one of the best teams in the ABA within two seasons? Let's start with the Oaks' origins.


The Oakland Oaks were formed in 1967 by Pat Boone, Kenneth Davidson, and Dennis Murphy for $30,000. Accounting for inflation, it would have only cost the three $245,000 to buy the team in 2021. That's a steal!


Even though $245,000 for a team is exceptionally underpriced, Boone, the majority owner of the Oaks, was losing money. Even in the Oaks Championship season, the team was only bringing in 2,800 fans per game. Even the Orlando Magic, one of the smallest market teams in the NBA, brings almost 18,000 fans per game.


Continuing with Boone, you may have heard of his name as he was a famous singer in the 1950-60s. I have never listened to any of his songs, but he was the second-biggest charting artist behind Elvis Presley at one point. Here are some of the songs he has made:

  • I'll Be Home

  • Love Letters in the Sand

  • I Almost Lost My Mind

  • Ain't That a Shame

  • Moody River

Before becoming the owner of the Oakland Oaks, Boone owned a team in the Hollywood Studio League known as the Cooga Moogas. Boone was such a basketball enthusiast that at the ages of 80-84, he played for the Virginia Creepers in the National Senior Games.

Boone wasn't the only one that has an interesting backstory. Dennis Murphy was a sports entrepreneur that helped co-found numerous sports leagues:

  • American Basketball Association

  • World Hockey Association

  • World Team Tennis

  • Roller Hockey International

In addition, Murphy was also the originator of the three-point line in the ABA and the Slam Dunk Contest!


Kenneth Davidson isn't as interesting as the other two, but he was the co-owner of an ABA team, so that in itself is already really fascinating.


As for the Oakland Oaks, the team's logo consisted of an oak tree and an acorn. The team was most likely named after Oak Trees as they were an integral part of the Californian ecology back then. Oakland also used to be an oak woodland before the Spanish colonized the area.


The Oakland Oaks' biggest competitor was a team from a different league, the San Francisco Warriors. This was because the Oaks had taken the Warriors' best player, Rick Barry. The Oaks gave Barry a deal of a lifetime to play for the team.


Barry was offered a six-figure salary (this was a lot back then) and 15% of the franchise! In addition, the Oaks even offered to sign Barry's father-in-law, Bruce Hale, to coach the Oaks. The Warriors had no way of matching this offer, but what they could do was file a lawsuit... which is what they did.


The case ended in favor of the San Francisco Warriors, so Rick Barry was prevented from playing for the Oakland Oaks in the 1967-68 ABA season. If the Oaks did have Barry in their first season, then maybe the Oaks would have won back-to-back Championships! Maybe the Oaks would still be a professional basketball team to this day if they had Barry earlier!


However, that's all just situational. Let's get back into reality and see how awful the Oakland Oaks performed in their first season in the ABA.

 

Table of Contents:

1967-68: Actually Garbage

1968-69: Transforming the Oakland Oaks

 

1967-68: Actually Garbage

In their first seasons in the ABA, the Oakland Oaks went 22-56 (28.2 W/L%) and finished as the worst team in the league. What makes this 'achievement' even more impressive is that according to the Elo Rating System, accounting for every team in every professional basketball league through 2015, the 1967-68 Oaks had the second-worst regular-season performance.

Being such a horrible team, it's expected that the Oaks were bad on offense and defense. The Oaks had the second-worst offensive rating (99.7) and worst defensive rating (105.7). The team also had the worst OPPG (117.4). The only team statistics in which the Oaks were above average were PPG (110.8) and Pace (110.5).


Coach Bruce Hale

This season, the team was coached by previously mentioned Bruce Hale. Before coaching the Oakland Oaks, Hale played on several teams in the NBL and NBA:

  • Chicago American Gears (1946-47)

  • Indianapolis Kautskys (1947-48)

  • Indiannapolis Jets (1948)

  • Fort Wayne Pistons (1948-49)

  • Indianapolis Olympians (1949-51)

Within his five-season playing career, Hale would win one Championship with the Chicago American Gears in 1947.


As for his coaching career, Hale would coach the following teams:

  • Indiannapolis Jets (1948)

  • University of Miami (1954-67)

  • Oakland Oaks (1967-68)

  • Saint Mary's College (1970-73)

In his 13 seasons with the University of Miami, Hale's record was 220-112 (66.3 W/L%). Hale's best season with the University of Miami was in the 1959-60 NCAA season. The team went 23-4 (85.2 W/L%) and got eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Hale's time with Saint Mary's College was nowhere near as successful compared to his time with the University of Miami. In his three seasons with Saint Mary's, he went 26-52 (33.3 W/L%). Hale's overall record was 246-164 (60.0 W/L%).


Best Players and Big 3

Even though the Oakland Oaks were horrible, they had a lot of good players. Their best player was Levern Tart. He averaged:


26.9 Points, 6.5 Rebounds, 3.5 Assists

42.8 FG%, 77.9 FT%

42 Minutes


In that season, Tart led the league in PPG and was also selected to be an All-Star. However, 42 games into the season, the Oaks would trade away their best player to the New Jersey Americans since he didn't get along with Bruce Hale.


Although Tart was the Oaks' star player, I agree with the front office's decision for trading Tart. Tart averaged 4.6 turnovers and shot 23.4 field goal attempts per game! LeBron James, one of, if not the best player in NBA history, has NEVER had a season where he shot more than 23.4 field goal attempts. The most field goals that LeBron has attempted was 23.1 in the 2005-06 NBA season.

However, Hale would leave the team the following season, so the Oaks ended up losing Tart and Hale, so all in all, a regrettable decision.


Besides Tart, many of the Oakland Oaks' best players only played half the regular season. The third and fourth-best players, Ira Harge and Barry Liebowitz, only played 30-35 regular-season games. Willie Porter, the Oaks' sixth-best player, only played 43 games.


If the Oaks had kept all the players, they could have at least NOT have the second-worst regular-season record in professional basketball history.

Out of the players that played at least 80% of the regular season for the Oakland Oaks, the top three players were Jim Hadnot, Ronald Franz, and Steve Jones. The three averaged:

Jim Hadnot:

17.5 Points, 12.2 Rebounds, 1.8 Assists

46.7 FG%, 66.8 FT%

39 MInutes


Ronald Franz:

12.6 Points, 6.3 Rebounds, 1.7 Assists

39.2 FG%, 25.8 3P%, 69.1 FT%

28 Minutes

Steve Jones:

10.1 Points, 4.5 Rebounds, 1.5 Assists

41.8 FG%, 42.6 3P%, 79.8 FT%

26 Minutes


Don't get me wrong, these players are good, but if these are your top three players, then it's not surprising that the Oakland Oaks did as bad as they did. The Oakland Oaks' Big 3 scored less than the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats Big 3:

  • Gerald Henderson: 15.1 Points

  • Corey Maggette: 15.0 Points

  • Kemba Walker: 12.1 Points

Surprisingly, out of the Big 3, the most successful player was the worst of the Big 3, Steve Jones. Hadnot only played one season in the ABA, and Franz would only play six. Jones ended up playing nine seasons in the ABA and was a 3x All-Star!


1967-68: Prominent Games

The Oakland Oaks' best game was on November 24th, 1967, against the Denver Rockets. The Oaks won, 113-90. This was a big upset since the Rockets ended up being the third seed in the Western Conference, and the Oaks suck. Also, out of the ten games that the Oaks went against the Rockets, they lost 70% of those games.


The Oaks' 23 point blowout win was because the role players transformed into All-Stars this game. 6/10 of the Oaks' players that played in this game scored more than ten points. Funnily enough, the Oaks best players did the worse this game:

  • Jim Hadnot: 13 Points

  • Ronald Franz: 11 Points

  • Levern Tart: 7 Points

  • Steve Jones: 3 Points

Mel Peterson, who averaged 9.5 points this season, scored 23 points this game. Willie Porter, who averaged 13.1 points this season, scored 19 points this game. Wesley Bialosuknia, who averaged 8.7 points this season, scored 14 points this game.


On the other side of the coin, the Denver Rockets' players were simply not having a good day. Only 3/10 of the Rockets' players scored more than ten points this game. The team shot 62.9% from the free-throw line.


This season, the Oakland Oaks' longest win streak was only three wins from November 16th, 1967, to November 20th, 1967. The box scores for this three-game win-streak were:

  • vs. Kentucky Colonels: 104-93

  • vs. Anaheim Amigos: 110-102

  • vs. Minnesota Muskies: 116-110

The Oakland Oaks' worst game was on November 14th, 1967, against the Pittsburgh Pipers. The Oaks lost, 98-128. This isn't surprising since the Pittsburgh Pipers were the best team in the league and were the 1967-68 Champions! I'm surprised that the margin of victory isn't even wider!


The Oakland Oaks didn't even play that bad this game. They played like how they usually played. The only notable aspect was that Andrew Anderson shot 0/6 from the field and 0/1 from the free-throw line. It's just that the Pittsburgh Pipers are really good.


The Pipers shot 48.0% from the field, and 6/11 of their players scored more than ten points:

  • Connie Hawkins: 33 Points

  • Ira Harge: 21 Points

  • Charles Williams: 18 Points